Weird and Wacky Turkmenistan

I’ve been in some pretty surreal places on this trip, but Turkmenistan takes the cake. It starts with the visa process, before you even enter the country. To travel independently you can only go on a five day transit visa, which takes up to 10 days to process and is not guaranteed. Otherwise you must get a tourist visa which requires you to be accompanied by an approved guide. The second option clearly is more expensive but it also guarantees you entry (once you are approved). That’s the route I took, even though this meant I could not ride my bike in Turkmenistan.

So after obtaining a letter of invitation from a local travel agency ($30), arranging the guide for a week ($800), paying the visa fee, travel fee, and border fee ($120) I met my guide and we were off in a dusty old van.

I did manage to lower the cost by teaming up with three Australian travellers who were on motorcycles (sounds much more sensible). They had left Vladivostok four months earlier and were headed to Denmark via Iran and Turkey. It was great having company and Tim, Ben and Kate were fun companions for the few days we were together.

Here they are in the Konye Urgench bazar

Carpets are big in Turkmenistan. Here is a shot at the Konye-Urgench bazar.

One of the first places we went was to the Darvaza gas crater. The Soviets were running a gas plant near the town of Darvaza in the 1950s. Apparently it exploded and created a huge hole in the ground 150 feet across and 100 feet deep. About 20 years ago someone smelled gas seeping out and decided to try to light it (a potential Darwin Award contender no doubt). What happened to the arsonist is not known but the crater caught fire and has been burning ever since. At night it lights up the sky for miles and up close you feel you are entering the gates of hell.

Here is the crater from a distance with the moon rising over it.

Some shots of the crater

We camped out near the crater that night at this site in the desert.

The Soviets also somehow made a crater full of boiling mud and one of water, equally large but not as impressive. Here is the water crater.

Next we went to the capital, Ashgabat, the only place in the country where we were allowed to walk around unaccompanied. To understand Ashgabat you need to understand a bit about the history of the country.

When the Soviets were kicked out, the communist leader at the time, Saparmurat Niyazov, quickly consolidated power and declared himself President for Life. He banned all other political parties and sent opposition leaders into exile. He took the title of Turkmenbashi (Head of all Turkmen) and plastered the country with huge photos of himself. Not exactly a modest guy, he also had gold statues of himself erected throughout the country, and embarked on a mad building program (he was educated as a builder) in order to transform Ashgabat into an all marble “white city”. The funds to do this came from Turmenistan’s huge gas and oil reserves, the second largest in the former Soviet Union. Niyazov finally died in 2006, leaving no heir apparent but $3 billion in a bank in Germany.

Foreign media criticized Niyazov as one of the world’s most totalitarian and repressive dictators, with some bizarre personal eccentricities, such as renaming the months of the year after members of his family and replacing all streets names with numbers. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan 2nd to last in its freedom of press ranking, one notch above North Korea. His successor does not seem too eager to change things.

But there is little dissent. An assassination attempt on Niyazov several years ago resulted in a purging of any potential rivals. The state attempts to pacify its citizenry with handouts from the enormous oil and gas receipts: Gasoline was free until a  couple years ago. Now it costs about $1.00 per gallon. Natural gas for your home is free, as is water and electricity. Housing is subsidized so people pay almost nothing in rent ($10/year). Education and medical care are free, and public transportation costs about $1 for 100 rides on the bus. Not much different from the old communists system I would say. It may work for now, but what happens when the gas runs out?

Here are some photos of the surreal city of Ashgabat, the “City of Love”.

One of the strange government buildings.

Dozens of these gaudy white buildings are being constructed. It did not appear any were occupied though.

The tasteless Monument to the Independence of Turkmentistan, also known as the plunger.

A statue near the monument evidently someone important in Turkemistan’s history. If he knew he was situated near the plunger he would be rolling in his grave.

A largely empty shopping center, this structure houses a large water fountain.

The bombastic Arch of Neutrality with a ridiculous 12m (36 foot) gold statue of Niyazov at the top. The statue revolves during the day to follow the sun.

A view of Ashgabat from the Arch

The president’s palace. It is forbidden to photograph this, but I snapped this shot quickly from a distance. Ever watchful, a policeman from across the street saw me and shooed me away. But I got the picture.

Most of the old communist statues of Stalin and Marx have been replaced by the new guys, but this one of Lenin still graces a small park.

One of the largest mosques in the world, Niyazov had this built despite the fact that Islam is not practiced strictly in Turkmenistan. It cost $130 million and holds up to 20,000 worshippers.

I thought all these satellite dishes on this apartment block looked amusing. Although local media are strictly controlled, they don’t seem to mind foreign media. I could get CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera on my hotel cable TV.

A local school girl.

Typical dress of women at the market.

A shop vendor waiting for customers.

After Ashgabat I was driven to the port city of Turkmenbashi, hoping to catch a ferry to Azerbaijan. I was a little nervous because I heard stories of people waiting several days for a ferry. As it turned out I was extremely lucky. A boat was leaving within an hour of my arrival. When my guide attempted to buy a ticket though, the clerk said the ship was sold out. Undaunted, my guide tracked down an acquaintance who worked in the immigration department. 15 minutes later, after a plea for help and a crisp $10 bill, I had my ticket. That’s Central Asia. With the right connections and few dollars you can pretty much get anything.

An hour later I was chugging west across the Caspian Sea into the setting sun.